This past week I received approximately 20 people sending me a YouTube web show called “Ask a Slave” by Azie Dungey who portrayed an enslaved maid at Mount Vernon. Through this medium of YouTube she shares some insensitive and not very thoughtful questions asked by people at Mount Vernon (and at a host of other sites that deal with slavery). Like others I appreciate the explanation and intent behind the project. My friends want to know “What do you think?”
The problem I have with this show is that interpreting enslavement in eighteenth and nineteenth century contexts must be taken seriously by the presenter and also by the receiver. Poking fun at visitor inquiries is not the best method of interpreting (to be fair this web show is not claiming to interpret). However, the questions posed by visitors are their (albeit often poorly worded) way to find some information regarding the lives of people of African descent who were enslaved. It is the interpretive staff’s job (and if you’re lucky—their passion) to relay the truth of historical events.
As someone who regularly interprets slavery for employment and as a hobby, I have been asked many of the questions presented in the “Ask A Slave” episodes. Sometimes it is while I am portraying a real or composite character of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and other times it is while wearing modern clothing and doing third-person interpretation.
One issue visitors most often return to is why slaves did not run away from a degrading institution. The question, even in first person, should be answered thoughtfully and not flippantly.
Visitor Question at 18th century slave site: “Why don’t you just run away through the Underground Railroad?”
Flippant answer: “What is a railroad?”
Visitor: (internally agitated/angry) “You know what I’m talking about! Harriet Tubman and all that.”
Flippant answer: “Well, I don’t know about any Harriet Tubman or this railroad. Maybe you need to be checked into the insane asylum.”
I received this exact question from a young girl and her father in 2008 when I was portraying an enslaved man in Massachusetts at Minute Man National Historical Park. The event was built around those of us in historical reproduction clothing experiencing (and helping visitors experience) life outside Boston in the summer of 1774 with the port of Boston recently closed.
My friend Neal (at right) and I portrayed a New England slaveholder and his enslaved laborer, Peter, at Minute Man National Historical Park. Here we are in front of the Hartwell Tavern (built 1732-1733).
I was in the Hartwell Tavern, which had reproduction newspapers scattered about. I used the props and encouraged the father-daughter team to really think about where it was that an 18th century enslaved person would go. Through our day-long interactions, the daughter read the reproduction 18th century newspaper for runaway ads. She sometimes read them to me and as she read about red headed, freckled Irish indentured maids or Scottish male indentured servants I had to tell her, “But young lady, you see those people do not look like me. There are not a lot of people who look like me around here (see the 1765 Boston census here).”
She left and came back a while later and said “Well, can’t you get on a ship and leave?”
I said “Oh no! I can’t get on a ship. The port of Boston is closed because of the anger of the people here with the King. Remember that in the newspaper?”
The father and daughter: “Yes.”
Me: “Furthermore it may be a slave ship and then I get sold.”
Finally I explained (all while never breaking character), that I certainly could not go to Virginia or South Carolina or Georgia for slavery was there. I could go west but what about the Indians and I asked even if I left the colony, where would I land and be free? I asked them whether they liked sugar to which they said they did, the girl (like most kids) loving candy. I asked if she knew who harvested sugar in 1774. She did not. I told her that it was in the Caribbean islands where thousands of slaves worked, most of them only living a few years before dying and then the plantation owners there would bring in more people. We talked about tobacco and rice as well all based on fact but also what my character had heard through the grapevine.
This family walked away with some knowledge about 18th century slavery without reading a 400 page book and in fact, partly discovered through their own work why there were not wholesale disappearances of enslaved people in the 1700s toward some other place. The details about the coming of the Revolution were less important for me than those portraying the Sons of Liberty.
At our mid-19th century historical sites in the context of more vocal anti-slavery people, groups, and the presence of the Underground Railroad, interpreters have to balance why slaves did not run away with other methods of resistance.
All of this reminds me of a post I recently saw through social media where someone asked a friend of mine a very important question:
“What are some intelligent questions to ask a slave [someone portraying a slave is what was meant]? I’ve wanted to engage some ‘slaves’ in conversation before, but frankly I feel too inadequate.”
Questions to first person characters do require some contextual thought. You should not ask someone portraying Mary Lincoln what it was like to have her husband murdered if you’re attending a program that talks about the Lincolns in 1863. The assassination is two years in the future. The same would be said for not asking someone portraying a slave in Florida what it is like to meet Frederick Douglass. Most enslaved people never met the “famous” folks of the past regardless of race, economic station, gender, etc.
I portrayed an enslaved man who was sent to construct earthworks around Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1862. Visitors asked about this type of work and I along with volunteers portraying Confederate soldiers compared and contrasted Civil War defenses with modern day military defenses.
Generally, any question you have is probably one that the interpreter is willing to answer. I’ll tackle some good ones that always need an answer:
- Why did the former slaves on this plantation/in this urban dwelling stay here after the Civil War?
- What kind of work do YOU do? What kind of work do other people do here? Easily flipped for non-character portrayals to “What kind of work did the enslaved people do here?”
- What is the most difficult thing for you each day?
- What fears did the enslaved people have regarding their interactions with the community at large and specifically their owner and his/her family?
- Can you tell me about your family? (And don’t leave it to the person having a spouse and some kids.) Follow ups: What do grandparents do here? What does your little girl do here? How do you take care of your children? When do you see your siblings?
- Where did the slaves live? What happened in the slave quarters? Why were those quarters built there and not somewhere else?
- When the slaves here got angry, how did they show their unhappiness?
- Have you ever been punished by the owner of this place? (And if the interpreter answers no, ask why not. If yes, the likelihood is the interpreter will tell you.) OR How were the enslaved community here punished? OR I’ve read about whippings but where were other ways that a master/mistress may discipline enslaved people?
- What sources do you have about slavery at this place? Did the owner leave records? Are there any interviews done with former slaves who worked and lived here?
- What types of food did the slaves eat? When did they have time to eat? Where did they eat?
- What will you do now that you’ve been emancipated?
These are just some immediate thoughts that came to mind. Others can be asked if you are in a very specific situation. The more you know the better questions and dialogue you can have with the interpreter(s). Tweaking the above questions will work for a first person conversation or one taking place in the 21st century with 21st century interpretive staff.
Again it bears repeating that this web series is not interpretation and it is not claiming to be; however, “Ask A Slave” may create uncertainty from the public to ask professional or volunteer staff the tough questions about slavery and those people who experienced it in bondage or as the slaveholder. As I visit historic sites from battlefields to plantations to museums in modern buildings dealing with historical events, I continue to be amazed that as much progress as one place has made another site has not.
I welcome questions and comments at work, in other presentations, and here. I ask questions when I am a visitor. I am not asking to simply create a “Gotcha!” moment. I am curious to see if the site has researched the lives of enslaved people and their work because it illustrates that the staff values that information and finds it important to share.
Often the change our historic sites need come from the questions visitors have. Hopefully some of what I have said above will allow all of us to think about what types of questions are we asking. Equally, our staff (professional or volunteer based) needs to be able to intelligently answer in a manner that allows people to get the most meaningful answer to create historical understanding.